By Dan Moffett
Ocean Ridge taxpayers appear likely to be charged at least $50,000 to cover Commissioner Richard Lucibella’s legal fees for defense against the failed recall movement that sought to remove him from office.
Fort Lauderdale attorney Sidney Calloway has sent the town invoices for about $80,000 in services for Lucibella, much of it at $485 per billable hour.
“I could not say that the number of hours was excessive or extreme,” said Town Attorney Ken Spillias, who reviewed the charges. “Generally, the time put in appeared reasonable to me.”
The town is covered by insurance, but the policy has a $50,000 deductible. And the carrier has been reluctant to pay anything because one Ocean Ridge official (Lucibella) ended up suing another official (Town Clerk Karen Hancsak), an unusual twist the company claims exempts it from writing a check.
Spillias believes that Florida case law comes down on Ocean Ridge’s side, and the town has a good chance of recovering the $30,000 above the deductible. Spillias’ argument to the insurance company is that the town had a public interest in intervening in the case and an obligation to reimburse an elected official against a legally flawed recall. Also, Lucibella had no choice but to defend himself against the recall group’s charges of malfeasance and had no choice but to sue the clerk because the position is charged with handling the petitions.
The town’s premium for legal liability insurance for the commissioners will be going up about $2,000, or 19 percent, in the next year’s budget.
“They have not stated that the increase was due to the recall,” Town Manager Ken Schenck said of the carrier, “but my guess is it didn’t help.”
The recall effort fell apart after a five-hour trial when Palm Beach County Circuit Judge Gregory Keyser ruled in June that the petitions didn’t satisfy statutory requirements and were legally insufficient. The 10-page decision ended a five-month campaign against Lucibella that began when he played a key role in forcing out Chris Yannuzzi as police chief in January.
“Anyone who read the statute and was thinking with their head would have looked at the petitions and said that’s not going to fly,” Lucibella said during the July 6 town commission meeting.
Beyond the cost of attorneys, Lucibella and his supporters believe the recall dispute has taken a heavy toll on public service in Ocean Ridge. Lucibella said that, going forward, residents will be less likely to run for office, and he blames his fellow commissioners for some of that. He said the town had a responsibility to see that the recall organizers followed proper procedures and also followed the law. Lucibella said because the commission didn’t act against the “sham of a recall,” his only alternative was to go to court and stop it himself.
“We didn’t play hardball on this,” Lucibella said of his court fight. “We went and protected ourselves. We went and protected future commissioners of this town. We got really damn little help from the current commission. I have really no hard feelings about that. You’re trying to protect the town’s best interests. But that was a pretty bad move. Because that’s going to cost the town’s taxpayers a minimum of $50,000.”
Former Mayor Ken Kaleel also criticized the commission for not supporting Lucibella early on.
“This commission should have taken a harder stance on this recall,” Kaleel told commissioners. “We need those fees reimbursed for this town, for the sanctity of future commissions. That recall was a joke. And it never should have gotten past first base. But it did. And this commission sat back and did absolutely nothing.”
In other business, at the July 21 budget workshop, commissioners unanimously voted to keep the town’s tax rate at $5.35 per $1,000 of assessed property value. The rollback rate — the rate at which tax revenues stay the same as last year — is $5.08 per $1,000.
Next year’s proposed budget has a deficit of about $180,000, but commissioners hope that shortfall can be reduced by a $129,000 windfall from code violation fines collected from owners of a property at 40 Hibiscus Way.
Proposed tax rate: $5.35 per $1,000 of taxable value
2014-15 tax rate: $5.35 per $1,000 of taxable value
Change in property value: 6.6 percent increase
Total budget (operating and capital): $6.13 million
Public hearings: 5:01 p.m. Sept. 10 and 17 at Town Hall
The commission tentatively signed off on giving the Police Department three new cruisers at a cost of about $120,000 and upgraded radio equipment for $80,000.